Nightlife in a harbour town comes with certain expectations, and Hamburg has no qualms about fulfilling them. The St. Pauli red light district and raucous Reeperbahn strip of fast food, cheap sex and late night pharmacies may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an integral part of Hamburg's identity, after-hours or otherwise. Hit locales in this area include venerated kneipe (pub) establishments like Zum Silbersack as well as higher-concept newcomers like Bahnhof Pauli.
If you’re looking for an altogether different kind of port charm, Skyline Bar 20up offers one of the best Hamburg harbour views, while StrandPauli combines a panorama of containers and shipping cranes with sand, palm fronds and laid back beats. For elegant cool and pure cocktail indulgence, splash out and savour each sip at Le Lion or Clockers.
The best Hamburg bars
Clockers isn't easy to find, but it's well worth it when you do. Look out for the discrete doorbell and buzz through to an interior of Narnia forest charm—all mossy walls and piled wood and fairy-lights twinkling from tree branches above. Head to the bar and you’ll be met with an expert staff, all too happy to recommend something from the creative, extensive menu or to concoct something new. Rest assured, this place knows how to mix a drink; it even has its own house-distilled Clockers Gin. Upstairs, you’ll leave the woodland for a library ambiance; think soft lamps, bookshelves and heavy leather Chesterfields. It’s perfect for a more earnest, or intimate, conversation, though many prefer to stay downstairs where there’s a little space for dancing later in the night. If you're especially into gin, book one of Clockers' two-hour tastings hosted every Thursday.
It’s rowdy, packed to the rafters and a Reeperbahn institution. Since 1949, cult locale Zum Silbersack has been delivering cheap drinks and power ballads until the early hours, counting Hans Albers and Hildegard Knef among its devoted clientele. With smoky air, sticky floors and no-nonsense service, this is by no means a glamorous venue, but everything you could ask for from an authentic kneipe. It’s a place of boisterous banter, warm hearts and proud tradition; when Zum Silbersack’s former landlady died after 63 years behind the bar, regulars mourned as if for a surrogate mother. Like a roadside diner from the facade, it’s all jostling tavern indoors, with wooden furnishings, check curtains and nautical scenes on the wall. You’ll be drinking shots or Astra beer out the bottle, and most likely swaying along to 1950s German schlager before you know it.
It’s vinyl and strictly vinyl at Le Fonque, one of the longer-standing survivors of the fast-gentrifying Sternschanze. Behind its black and red façade on the Juliusstraße, it’s a small, smoky place, where the low soft seats and red-tinged lighting lend a suggestive shimmer to the nightly bliss of funk, soul, boogie and ice-cold Astra. Seven nights a week, live DJs play at the bar beside a bountiful bouquet of fresh lilies. With its great tunes, reasonably priced drinks and stalwart neighbourhood vibes, Le Fonque is a popular hang-out for Hamburg locals, both young and young at heart. For late-night munchies, locals love Ericka’s Eck around the corner.
Le Lion has quickly claimed a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Hamburg, if not Germany. Behind its door-belled entrance, the two-floor venue channels Mad Men-style glamour, with textured wallpaper, wooden sheen and a palette of amber, gold and an appropriately whiskey brown. Though the clientele is mixed and informal, the place exudes an elegant poise; the music is sultry and smooth, the lighting golden soft, and the capacity carefully monitored to allow enough expert attention for each cocktail creation. Le Lion’s signature drink is the Basil Smash, which is basically a liquid dose of Italian summer, no matter how cold or wet Hamburg is outdoors.
It sounds a bit USSR and is certainly more than a bit like drinking on a Cold War film set. With its sleek panelling, metallic finish, minimalist wall clock and rectangular configuration of tables and office chairs, Central Congress looks ready to welcome prominent party members, rather than hip Hamburg night owls. But since opening a couple of years back, this conference-styled locale has won a crowd of image-conscious fans. Its round-table layout makes it a neat place to start up conversation with other drinkers, but bear in mind it prides itself on being off the main tourist track. The drinks menu is as pared down yet precise as the retro design—think gin, pastis, vermouth, a select few red and white wines, local beer and coffee. (And for more vintage design, check out the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe just down the road.)
As close as Hamburg gets to the Caribbean, StrandPauli brings you true beach vibes with sand, wooden decks, palm fronds and, if you’re lucky, harbour-side rays. The tall central lamppost is a little out of joint, but otherwise the place does a fine job at transporting you from the Elbe to tropical island chill, complete with relaxed tunes, shabby mix-and-match furnishings, and laid-back, friendly service. Needless to say, it’s a summer hotspot, but proudly open all year round, with hearty fondue added to the menu in the colder months, and some stunning winter sunsets across the water.
All aboard. This self-styled "underground club station" is a relative newcomer to the Hamburg nightlife scene but already a favourite with its kooky concept and top quality techno, electro and hip-hop sounds. Situated in the St.Pauli Klubhaus off the famed Reeperbahn, the Bahnhof stays true to its name, mimicking the U-Bahn aesthetic from its curved, tiled walls to the "compartment" seating and the bespoke bar built from original parts of an old subway. But it’s not all urban grunge and artefacts; there are chandeliers, cosy sofas and a supremely friendly staff. Bahnhof Pauli also plays host to concerts, comedy nights, and open-mic sessions; check their “Fahrplan” online for the latest listings. Want to impress your travel companion with some local trivia? The incongruously old-school police-station a couple of doors down is something of an iconic German institution; it’s featured in various TV series and films and once had Paul McCartney and Pete Best in for the night.
For a laid-back glass of wine with neighbourhood vibes and a leafy setting, make your way up to Ufer. This small café and bar, right by the northerly Isebekkanal, combines rustic charm with great food and wine, and remains (so far) well off the beaten tourist track. The interior is simple and charming, if not prize-winning, but if it’s warm enough—and there are blankets if you’re unsure—a cool Riesling beneath the trees outside is lovely. Service is English-speaking and very friendly. If you get hungry, the Flammkuchen are completely homemade and delicious.
With its prominent corner location, Bar Rossi is regarded as another of the best club-bars in the Schanze, combining great cocktails with disco and electro beats. It’s a retro-glamour vibe, with rich-coloured walls, low soft seats and a showpiece modernist chandelier. The drinks menu is strong on gin, while signature cocktails include the Rossi Fizz—soda, egg white, rhubarb syrup, lemon and orange and vanilla infused Helbing Kummel, a classic Hamburg liquor. Once you’ve got your groove on downstairs, head upstairs for a generous dance floor and great views over the Schanze from the wrap-around balcony. Rossi also does live music sets every Wednesday night.
A few Hamburg bars vie for the best views accolade, but the swanky Skyline Bar 20up—yup, 20 floors up—is often deemed the winner. Yes, it’s a hotel bar, and it’s certainly more than a little touristy, but with its high perch and floor to ceiling windows, the view sure is impressive. For those who like to get a sense of city geography from the get-go, this a perfect spot to go on your first evening in Hamburg, sipping a drink on a tall bar stool while taking in the St.Pauli district, Elbe, Elbphilharmonie, and the vast harbour infrastructure that’s so integral to Hamburg’s history and sense of self. Note that scenery like this doesn’t come cheap; the prices are steep and some feel they’re paying predominantly for the panorama, with good (but not exceptional) cocktails. This is a popular place with a strict dress code. Be sure to arrive the smarter side of casual for a better chance of getting in.